By ethan rublee, January 29th, 2009

an 8 bit microcontroller

Today, most of us have 32 or 64-bit beasts sitting on our desks or laps. With all this power and wonderment, we’re empowered to create a limitless array of electronic masterpieces: retro tabletop Pong, a decoder ring for an ARG, a visual/audio 8-bit spectacle, etc.  PC dev, however, might be a little tricky for newcomers to the DIY scene. For starters, you might consider something a little more tinker friendly than a PC–a microcontroller.

Microcontrollers are the most pervasive computers in the world, used in everything from toasters to cellphones.   They are entire computers on a small, inexpensive chip.  They can be wired up easily to external components, programmed with free tools, and used for prototyping galore. It takes some motivation to learn the ways of microcontrollers, but it’s worth the toil.

Microcontrollers are great at demystifying the computer.  Computers are essentially adding machines where it all comes down to 1s and 0s, on or off.  Popular hobbyist microcontrollers are “8-bit”.  This means their memory is laid out in 8-bit slots, or 8 1s and 0s.  An 8-bit number has a range from 0 to 255.  Usually these 8-bit chips can only do simple math, like adding, subtracting, multiplying.  Division is a stretch.  Even so, a common microcontroller that can be bought today for a dollar has substantially more horsepower than the Atari 2600.

Microcontrollers are popular in the Demo Scene, because the hardware limitations make for a challenging platform.  A great example of pushing the 8-bit hardware to the limits can be seen here.

Linus and his demo inspired me to try and pump something out on an 8-bit chip.  Over the week end, I did some research and had some microcontroller fun.  By the end of the weekend I had VGA output drawing pixels on my monitor from my pic18f4550. Working with an 8-bit computer was like traveling back in time.  I gained an appreciation of society’s digital roots.  Limited by the technology, it opened up the opportunities.  I felt like a true hacker, one with the binary opcodes. With a few days, and less than $60 (all prototyping equipment included), I was well on my way to a full clone of Pong.

The possibilities with hardware are endless.  My plan is to make a retro interactive piece, with Brazil undertones.  Gadgets could be designed for an ARG, serving a  similar purpose as the puzzle cards did in Perplex City.  Interactive displays, geocaching, “smart” art…  Or you can just impress people with your mess of wires and extreme geek aura.

btw, an awesome place to start with microcontrollers is www.sparkfun.com

ethan rublee

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ethan rublee is a researcher at the Computer Fusion Laboratory in Temple University's College of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is also a software engineer with Seize the Media, working on transmedia application development. As of late, Mr. Rublee's research involves augmented reality, computer vision, novel human interfaces, and mobile apps. Ethan is currently developing mobile and web applications for Lance Weiler's transmedia project, HIM.

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